Plan B: Science Finally Wins Over Politics (Op-Ed)

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Michael Halpern, program manager at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The White House announced yesterday (June 10) that it will finally defer to scientific judgment on access to emergency contraception. For medical experts, this issue hasn't been about liberal or conservative politics. It's been about following drug safety laws that put science and public safety above partisanship.

Specifically, the Obama administration dropped its challenge to a federal judge's order to make the emergency contraception pill known as Plan B — or more colloquially, as the "morning after pill" — available over the counter to women of all ages. Medical experts at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have repeatedly found that it is safe to expand access to the pill, but politicians kept overruling their scientific judgment.

In April, after years of court fights, federal judge Edward Korman, a Ronald Reagan appointee who clerked for a Republican congressman, blasted the administration's decision to limit access to Plan B as "arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable."He said the Bush and Obama administrations' attempts to misuse the science on Plan B amounted to an administrative filibuster.

Hopefully, 10 years of bipartisan attempts to misrepresent the science on Plan B can now be put to rest.

Unlike other pills that can terminate pregnancies, Plan B is a contraceptive. Although medical evidence shows that the drug is safe and effective for all women, the pill has provoked distortions and distractions on both sides of the great political divide. Some on the right say that more access to the pill will result in more sexual activitya baseless claim. The president, meanwhile, expressed parental squeamishness and questioned whether teenagers are capable of safely using the drug, despite the fact that the FDA found that they are.

Federal drug safety law rests on science. This makes sense. Medical experts — not politicians or interest groups or campaign contributors — are in the best position to independently evaluate a drug's safety, whether it's emergency contraception, painkillers or heart medication. But for 10 years, those experts have been sidelined.

In late 2003, FDA scientists and a panel of independent experts recommended that Plan B be made available over the counter. In a highly unusual move, Bush administration political appointees rejected the scientists' analysis. Dr. Susan Wood, who then led the FDA's Office of Women's Health, resigned in protest, writing to her colleagues, "I can no longer serve as staff when scientific and clinical evidence … has been overruled."

The decision to deny full over-the-counter sales set off years of court fights and halting, arbitrary responses spanning two administrations. In 2009, a court ordered the FDA to re-evaluate the evidence. Scientists again determined the drug is safe. But, in December 2011, Health and Human Services Department Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the agency for political reasons.

It was the first time the department had ever done so, and medical experts from the American Medical Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics were shocked. So again, it went back to court.

It's a shame how many thousands of hours and millions of dollars were spent over the past decade trying to get this decision right. Judge Korman should be commended for his ruling. He did what two administrations failed to do: follow the law and make a decision about access to a drug based on medical evidence.

President Obama, who in an April speech to the National Academy of Sciences pledged "fidelity to facts and truth," has finally and rightfully allowed the judge's ruling to stand.

Unfortunately, policymakers in the legislative and executive branches are increasingly willing to ignore, manipulate or attack science to serve political agendas. Often, the courts don't let them get away with it. Whether it's the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to classify air pollutants or the Consumer Product Safety Commission's duty to determine whether or not children's toys are safe, federal courts have routinely stood up for science when politicians haven't.

Such checks and balances are just what our founders intended. John Adams invoked scientific principles when arguing in favor of our constitutional system's separation of power among three branches of government. He and other founders understood that public passions could erode the role of facts and reason in debate.

But we shouldn't have to rely on the judiciary to be the bulwark of reason in our political system . We must hold leaders in the other two branches accountable when they politicize science and support policymakers who respect the role science plays in society.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan knew this, too. His reminder to the impassioned ideologues of his era is even more resonant today: we are entitled to own our opinions, but not our own facts.

Follow Halpern on Twitter @MichaelUCS.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.com.

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